Monday, November 10, 2014
Reeling Backward: "Kit Carson" (1940)
It's funny to think about how much liberty Hollywood took with history back in its heyday. Nowadays if they make a movie about something that really happened and change around too many facts, audiences and critics would jump all over it for inaccuracies. But back in the day, they'd unfurl a whole bunch of BS and not blink twice.
Kit Carson, a mountain man, scout and quasi-military man, was already a legend during his lifetime. He helped blaze the trail to California through Oregon, fought in the Mexican-American War and, briefly, the Civil War. Books were written about his adventures as far back as 1849, there were a couple of movies, including 1940's "Kit Carson," plus a 1950s TV show. Most everything about his life, from the books to the shows, was made up out of whole cloth or twisted around to a laughable degree.
Fir instance, Carson actually made several expeditions with U.S. Army Captain (later general) John C. Frémont during the 1840s. Rather than Frémont recruiting Carson as the most renowned scout in the West, the two men bumped into each other on a steamboat cruise and the frontiersman pitched his services to the soldier.
Both men fought in the Mexican-American War, though separately. And both were already married when they met each other -- in Carson's case, several times over to American Indian brides. The certainly never fought gallantly over the hand of a wealthy Californian's daughter, Dolores, played by Lynn Bari.
In one of the more interesting aspects of this movie, each man is actually pushing the woman they love toward the other fellow. Dana Andrews is upstanding and charming as Frémont, while Jon Hall plays the country bumpkin angle to the hilt as Carson. The well-bred Dolores, in typical fashion, finds the lanky scout to be an insufferable savage, until she recognizes his finer qualities.
Frémont offers to marry Dolores, even though he knows she loves Carson, because he's such a selfless guy and all that.
The two men butt heads several times in the early going, but without rancor, as Frémont insists on following his orders to find the most direct route to California to the letter -- even if it means riding right into a trap the Shoshonis have laid out for his troops. Carson, as the hired wagon master for the pioneers trailing in the soldiers' wake, urges caution and forbearance.
"It's better to lose 60 miles than 60 lives," he reckons.
Carson's two gleeful sidekicks are Ward Bond as Ape, a good-natured liar, and Harold Huber as Lopez, their south of the border amigo. They're always ready to ride off with Carson at a moment's notice, quick with a joke and a laugh. Ape gets a love interest of his own, a pinch-faced woman named Genevieve (Renie Riano). But, like Carson, he can't countenance the idea of giving up a life of roaming and beaver pelts for a bed and a home.
The heavy is General Castro, played by C. Henry Gordon. He's secretly supplying rifles to the Indians and goading them into attacking the American wagon trains.
Gordon is as white as me and Huber was a Russian Jew, and don't make for very convincing Mexicans. But that's about par for the course in this movie, in which the several shots of the Shoshonis clearly show most of them to be white guys in war paint and feathers.
"Kit Carson" is amiable, formulaic and dumb as a desert-baked brick.